In Cold Blood

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Themes and Colors
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in In Cold Blood, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Evil Theme Icon

Primarily explored through the seemingly motiveless and random killing of the Clutters, In Cold Blood grapples with the question of what is and isn’t evil. Characters – especially criminals – often hold conflicting and ambiguous attitudes toward evil. Perry, for example, seems to be of the opinion that his killing of the Clutters wasn’t necessarily an evil act. When asked by his staunchly Christian army buddy Don Cullivan whether he felt any shame or guilt for the murders, Perry simply shrugs. “Soldiers don’t lose much sleep,” he says. “They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work.” On the other hand, Perry has strong disapproval for what he calls “pervertiness” – he feels that Dick’s pedophilic tendencies are evil, and he goes so far as to prevent the rape of young Nancy Clutter before she’s shot in the head.

The question of who is capable of carrying out evil acts is also dealt with, primarily through a biographical and psychological exploration of Perry and Dick. In reading Perry’s psychological profile, one ultimately might question whether or not his crimes were actually evil, given that he seems psychologically predisposed toward certain acts of violence. To further complicate matters, Perry comes off as a highly sympathetic character, calling into question whether he himself is evil. After the final verdict, a young Oklahoman reporter remarks, “’Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life -‘“

The banality of evil – that is, the idea that evil is often committed as a matter of course, sometimes as part of someone’s job – is also explored. The hanging of Perry and Dick, for example, is clearly an act of state sanctioned murder – but does this mean the hangman is committing an evil act?

Evil ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Evil appears in each chapter of In Cold Blood. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Evil Quotes in In Cold Blood

Below you will find the important quotes in In Cold Blood related to the theme of Evil.
Part 1 Quotes

At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok, Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In Cold Blood opens by describing a serene and pastoral town in which salt-of-the-earth Kansans raise families and livestock in a religious and warm community. Capote sets up this image of paradise only to dash it with the description of the shotgun blasts. In a way, this opening mirrors the experience of reading the whole book; Capote repeatedly presents readers with idyllic scenes of American life and traditionally successful characters only to tell us afterwards that everything is darker and more complicated than it initially appears.

This quotation also sets in motion the unspooling of the plot. By revealing that four shotgun blasts ended six lives, Capote tells readers from the start that the two killers are doomed as well. This foreshadowing (or prolepsis, as it would be more accurately described) makes the dreams and aspirations that the two killers express throughout the remainder of the book seem hopeless and even tragic. In this way, Capote has primed the readers for one of the major themes of the book: that the American dream seems always out of reach. 

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A cinch…I promise you, honey, we’ll blast hair all over them walls.

Related Characters: Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a crucial passage, as it establishes for certain that Dick and Perry's plan is not only robbery, but also murder. In other words, these two men are committing the premeditated murder of a family they have never met--this is murder "in cold blood," which gives the title to Capote's book. This passage is even more chilling for the casual and even celebratory way that Dick talks about the planned murder, which raises the question of evil. While Perry is presented as a sympathetic and conflicted character, Dick seems here to entirely lack a conscience. 

It is also worth noting the language that Dick uses to address Perry. In Cold Blood devotes itself to exploring ideas of masculinity and all kinds of male bonds, from conspiratorial to aspirational to intimate. Certainly, Dick's using the word "honey" points to an unusual intimacy between the two men. The term also feminizes Perry, a theme that continues throughout the book. 

Part 2 Quotes

…once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t. Or will – depending. As long as you life, there’s always something waiting, and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do?

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Perry says this in response to Dick asking him why, if he had a premonition that something bad would happen, did he continue with their plan. His response reveals that Perry is, perhaps, less secular and innocent than he seemed at first. As readers have been acquainted with a Perry who is possessed by his fantastic dreams of treasure hunting in Mexico, the fatalism of this passage comes as a shock. While Perry had once seemed a little innocent in his unrealizable aspirations, we now see that Perry may actually understand the hopelessness of his position more than we think.  

His response also seems almost religious, even though Perry is somebody who disavows religion. Perry claims, to some extent, to have had no agency in the murders, as he feels that he was possessed by a fate that was determined outside of himself. Not only does Perry show his belief in fate here, but he also reveals that he thinks of himself as some sort of mystic--he cites a history of premonitions. This passage adds considerable depth to Perry's character, and also casts doubt on Perry's sense of good and evil, as he chooses to cite fate rather than reckoning with his own choices. 

Now, what kind of person would do that – tie up two women…and then draw up the bedcovers, tuck them in, like sweet dreams and good night?

Related Characters: Alvin Dewey (speaker), Perry Edward Smith, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Alvin contemplates the specifics of the murder scene, saying that he is most tantalized by the trouble that the killers went to to make sure the Clutters were comfortable. Alvin seems unable to understand how a cold-blooded murderer could be in the process of killing and simultaneously beholden to the impulses towards kindness that would make him tuck Nancy and Bonnie in, or put a pillow under Kenyon's head. With this passage, Capote continues to explore the complex nature of evil. Evil, Capote seems to say, is not monolithic--an almost scarier proposition than the idea of somebody being purely evil, since it makes us ask to what extent one has to follow evil impulses to do evil, and, conversely, how much kindness is required to save us from evil.

In these considerations, the passage also makes a commentary on our perceptions about what is normal. It seems that Alvin does not believe that these impulses towards kindness are "normal" behavior for a killer, though kindness would be "normal" behavior for the middle-class Christians in his community. Alvin's inability to categorize "normal" and "abnormal" people is, he seems to say, more difficult to process than the fact of the murders itself.

Part 3 Quotes

But I’m afraid of [Perry]. I always have been. He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily…. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him –

Related Characters: Barbara (Smith) Johnson (speaker), Perry Edward Smith
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is spoken by Perry's sister, who is a source of torment for him--at this point in the book he has expressed his hatred for her patronizing attitude and her lack of sympathy for his plight, as well as his wish that she had been in the Clutter home the night of the murders. While this passage, spoken by Barbara, seems, perhaps, less sympathetic to Perry than the reader might expect, her sentiment does not seem unjustified. For her, Perry's evil lies in the dichotomy between his outward appearance of sweetness and his inward tendencies toward violence. Barbara seems to view this as pathological manipulation, and it forces us as readers to step back and wonder if we have been similarly manipulated by Capote's attention to Perry's inner conflicts, dreams, and passions, which seem to soften his cruelty.

Barbara also presents a challenge to the fatalistic hypothesis that Perry is the way he is because his childhood was so bad--Barbara herself had a similar childhood, and she has achieved a life that she, and most others, would consider normal. This is an important counterpoint to Perry's own idea that he is not totally responsible for his actions, since he is controlled by fate and the past.

Perry Smith killed the Clutters…. It was Perry. I couldn’t stop him. He killed them all.

Related Characters: Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok (speaker), Perry Edward Smith, Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Dick is portrayed as the more cold-blooded of the two killers due to his lack of remorse and kindness. When presented with an evidence photograph of a bloody footprint and told of all the murder charges he is facing, Dick does not keep to his word that he and Perry will tell the same story to police interrogators, and instead he blames the killings on Perry. This further cements the reader's negative opinion of Dick, as he is essentially attempting to sacrifice his friend, who he dragged into the killings in the first place, in order to spare his own future. While Perry represents a nuanced and even banal vision of evil (he commits an evil act because Dick tells him to, and feels some remorse after), Dick is a much more polar version of evil. Dick is shown as cruel, manipulative, and lacking empathy in a way that almost points to psychological pathology. 

Nonetheless, [Alvin] found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger…for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith, Alvin Dewey
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes at the end of Alvin hearing Perry's full confession to the Clutter murders. Capote devotes pages to Perry giving an account in excruciating detail of how he and Dick killed the four Clutters, and then Alvin proclaims that he has a certain sympathy for Perry, and he's not angry, though he does not feel inclined towards forgiveness or mercy either. Alvin, perhaps, has the most nuanced perspective on Perry of all. Unlike Perry's sister, he does not think of Perry as pure evil; unlike Dick, he does not think of Perry as weak and abnormal; and unlike Perry himself, he does not chalk the man's actions up to fate and rotten circumstance. While Alvin acknowledges that Perry has been, for his whole life, in the maddening position of chasing a dream that is actually a "mirage," he still believes that Perry is responsible for his own choices, indicating that he believes that evil is something not inherent to a person, but something within his or her control. 

Part 4 Quotes

Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill – a lot easier than passing a bad check. Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel different. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking targets off in a shooting gallery.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker), Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Related Symbols: Death Row
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the story, Perry is beginning to unravel psychologically, so his words cannot be considered reliable. However, in a sense, this passage seems to be one of the most honest in the book. It would have been easy for Perry to play up his moral conflict (evident in his efforts to make the Clutters comfortable before their deaths, his questioning whether he and Dick are normal if they're capable of an act like that, or his thinking of Nancy Clutter on her birthday) and earn the sympathy of his Christian friend, but instead he presents himself in a pretty unforgiving light. This is another example of Perry's brand of evil being complex--Perry admits that he would have felt remorse if he'd known the Clutters, but says he is not sorry since he didn't know them, which seems sociopathic. However, this assertion is contradicted by the fact that by the time this quote occurs we've just found out that Perry tried to take the blame for the murders to spare Dick's family shame, indicating that Perry does have some empathy for people he doesn't know. Perry also makes a moral comparison between the Clutter murder and the acts of soldiers and executioners, and questions whether one can make a meaningful distinction between them. Essentially, this quote indicates that Perry cannot understand the depths of his own moral confusion, and he seems weary of trying. 

Well, what’s there to say about capital punishment? I’m not against it. Revenge is all it is, but what’s wrong with revenge? …I believe in hanging. Just so long as I’m not the one being hanged.

Related Characters: Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok (speaker)
Related Symbols: Death Row
Page Number: 336
Explanation and Analysis:

Dick has also unraveled psychologically, as he seems to believe that he is actually innocent of the murders. He has also, by this point, spent a lot of time learning the law to try to contest his fate. This behavior, along with the quote at hand, shows that Dick's brand of evil, unlike Perry's, is entirely self-interested and manipulative, to a potentially pathological extent. Perry is interested in finding a consistent moral logic that explains his behavior and the behavior of those around him (i.e. that he is guilty of murder in the same way that the state is guilty of murder in war and through capital punishment), which shows that Perry still sees himself as embedded in a society that is operating together by, largely, the same rules. Dick, though, has no such interest--he is only concerned with himself, even to the extent that he is willing to assert something so bizarre and contradictory as his support for the death penalty on the grounds that nothing is wrong with revenge, unless it is he who is being hanged. 

I think…it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something – It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker)
Related Symbols: Death Row
Page Number: 340
Explanation and Analysis:

Perry's last words further show the complexity of evil. Perry did something evil, and the humility of his apology shows that even he would likely admit that at this point. However, he does not believe that this makes him wholly bad, and he does not believe that the taking of one life (or even four) justifies the taking of another. Despite Perry's flaws, he emerges from this story seeming reasonably human and sympathetic. It's profound that Perry acknowledges that even if he is sorry for what he has done, it is meaningless to say the words in the face of the lives he has taken. 

This passage is also Perry's final appeal to his beloved dreams. Throughout the book Perry has been full of dreams--he is always aspiring to a better life than the one he has, but his visions for the future have, up until now, been largely concerned with personal wealth and adventure. That at the moment of his death Perry's dream for the future is to contribute to society opens the possibility that Perry has grown.